Changing the world? Article icon


The term ‘responsible business’ may now be part of the corporate lexicon but when charity Business in the Community opened for business in 1982, few chief executives would have recognised or even understood the concept.

The campaigning organisation has played a major role over the past 32 years in ensuring that responsible business became a mainstream business consideration. And today, corporate social responsibility is a boardroom priority.

As Gail Greengross, communications director at Business in the Community (BITC), says: ‘There is a growing recognition from business that their existence depends on the contact between their business and society and, crucially, that by fulfilling this social purpose, they will add value back to their business.

‘Every business, no matter its size and level of sophistication is thinking about responsibility even if they don’t realise it. Every big business will voluntarily produce a corporate responsibility report and, more often than not, they are using the model we outlined in 2001 suggesting that businesses consider their impact in the workplace, marketplace and community.’

Getting companies to commit to a fairer society and a more sustainable future may be a noble cause, but defining ‘responsible business’ remains challenging. Even the independent corporate responsibility rankings, such as BITC’s Corporate Responsibility Index or the FTSE4Good index, differ depending on what they choose to measure – from environmental strategy to customer service.

The difficulty in pinning down the specifics may at least partly explain the sheer breadth of BITC campaigns.

Programmes cover initiatives such as sustaining the countryside, healthy eating in the workplace and in schools, marketplace sustainability and creating work opportunities for ex-offenders.

Apart from the difficulty in managing all of this, there must surely be a danger that the remit is now so wide as to dilute the impact, making it difficult to effect any real or lasting change. At the same time, can it really add value back – namely, in the current environment, restoring public trust in business?

Being the change You Want to see

But the hundreds of major brands that are signed-up members of BITC coupled with its success stories suggest that it is doing something right. For example, its business-school partnership programme, which began in just a handful of schools in the North West of England six years ago, today supports almost 60,000 young people in more than 400 schools in deprived areas across the UK. Its Give & Gain Day, which launched in 2008, is a day of employee volunteering, connecting skilled professionals with community organisations such as schools, day centres and youth groups. This year, the Give & Gain Day initiative was celebrated in 28 countries while record numbers participated in the UK, with more than 14,000 employees volunteering.

It’s an impressive record but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. As a business-led organisation, Greengross says that BITC’s agenda needs to reflect the priorities of business. ‘So we work with businesses across such a broad spectrum of issues because every business is different and every business leader grapples with broad and varied issues every day,’ she explains.

Pressures might come from a non-governmental organisation to reduce environmental or social impacts, from the Government to improve diversity or from shareholders to reduce business risk, she says. BITC attempts to reconcile these myriad, and often immediate requirements, with the long-term needs of thousands of communities all facing their own issues and challenges.

To balance the complexity of its agenda, BITC uses simple, easy to understand language to talk about responsible business both internally to members and externally. This focuses on two things: the big issues BITC believes businesses should act to address and developing the kind of leadership that drives this action.

‘When you speak in this language it enables individual businesses to see how they are part of a movement of companies each in their own way contributing to a greater whole,’ says Greengross. Combined with practical help, such as an account management system, and bespoke support, benchmarks, tools and programmes, Greengross thinks that BITC not only makes the concept of responsible business easier to grasp, but also helps businesses turn the vision into action.

She adds: ‘It’s what happens when committed businesses grip and run with an innovative idea and work with us to take it to scale.’

Measuring the value

The case was clearly strong enough to convince UK City law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer to sign up. It has had a partnership with BITC since 2001 as one of eight national partners that support ‘Ready for Work’ (RFW), a programme that helps disadvantaged people into employment by giving them employability training and work placements.

Juliet Holden, corporate responsibility executive at Freshfields, explains that the law firm focused on homelessness after four in five respondents to its corporate responsibility survey agreed that it was an issue that needed to be tackled. ‘Our staff can help tackle the issue and volunteers can have a lasting impact, raising participants’ chances of employment and independence,’ she adds.

This assistance translated into work placements, when staff act as a buddy or supervisor for the period, and then offer support afterwards as career coaches. ‘Since the programme began we have offered 261 work experience placements,’ says Holden. ‘Twenty-seven have been employed by the firm or our contractors, 13 in the last two and a half years. In the last financial year 43 per cent of participants entered employment within a year of their placement at Freshfields and 83 per cent sustained employment for six months.’

The benefits have been many. Apart from the obvious impact for the unemployed, the initiative has generated a feel-good feeling across Freshfields as well as some more tangible business impacts. ‘Ready for Work has helped us tackle a recruitment issue,’ Holden says. ‘Turnover in our entry roles was high, as previously over-qualified candidates were recruited. These roles are better suited to participants of Ready for Work, so we’ve reduced staff turnover and recruiting and training costs. Based on average starting salaries and costs of hiring through an agency, we’ve saved around £115,000 by hiring participants.’

Holden adds: ‘Freshfields has collaborated with clients on Ready for Work which helps strengthen our relationships and, by providing detailed information on corporate responsibility activities in client pitches, we are able to demonstrate our commitment to corporate responsibility and shared values.’

So successful has the initiative proved that in January Freshfields became the first law firm to sign up to BITC’s ‘Ban the Box’ campaign, removing the tick box that asks about convictions on application forms. Potential employees are now only judged on their skills and suitability first with disclosure only requested once a job offer has been made, after which the firm will make a final decision.

It could be seen as a token gesture but over the past two years Freshfields has hired 13 people, of whom six have served custodial sentences. It’s evidence of how BITC can be an agent to help challenge ingrained perceptions and deliver real change.

Rescuing reputation

But how far can a movement like BITC help a sector that is in need of a total reputational overhaul, such as financial services? In the wake of the financial crisis, the values espoused by BITC were boosted as customers sought out alternatives to what they perceived as the green and financial mismanagement of the UK’s biggest banks. The Co-operative Bank, in particular, received a fillip as customers embraced its long-held ethical and social values.

But its well-documented problems last year, ranging from financial mismanagement to the drug habit of its former chairman Paul Flowers, led to an exodus of customers. The revelations made the public more hostile, not just to the banking sector, but to corporates in general. Their argument: if the one business that actively traded itself on being ethical behaves like this, why should I believe any of them?

For BITC, partnering with banks may therefore be critical to successfully bringing business as a whole and society closer together. For Lloyds Banking Group, the potential benefits are obvious. ‘We believe that by doing business responsibly, we can differentiate ourselves from our competitors, deliver sustainable growth and add value for our shareholders and society,’ says Graham Lindsay, director, responsible business at Lloyds Banking Group. ‘We can build colleagues’ pride in a business that strives to do the right thing and we believe we will lead the way in rebuilding public trust in our brands and the banking industry.’

At this year’s Give & Gain Day, Lloyds Banking Group showed the potential clout of the banking sector when its employees comprised 40 per cent of the volunteers. ‘In fact we made up 20 percent of the entire worldwide figure too,’ adds Lindsay.

The bank also recently launched its own ‘Helping Britain Prosper Plan’ that sets out seven key commitments and more than 20 ‘independently verified prosper metrics’, which cover the areas where Lloyds can make the biggest difference to customers across households, businesses and communities.

The need to come together

While this is a Lloyds Banking Group initiative, it’s clear that working with BITC has been a vital source of inspiration and support. ‘The networking opportunities with like-minded organisations are key, as is the wealth and depth of informed insight we gain access to via our membership with them,’ says Lindsay. ‘Their work with Government decision- makers, academics and media gives us a very real opportunity to ensure we stay abreast of, and help shape, responsible business practice and helps us ensure it remains on the political agenda. It also provides a plethora of platforms from which to communicate the positive work we are doing.’

There is a strong sense of collaboration not just with BITC but with other companies, including competitors. Indeed Lindsay describes this kind of knowledge-sharing as one of the key benefits of working alongside BITC. ‘No one organisation knows everything,’ he adds.

This plays to BITC’s strengths. Its objective is to bring businesses together to tackle issues at a scale that individual businesses would not be able to achieve on their own. ‘Our members are able to collaborate at an impressive scale to deliver change because by acting together, they are able to achieve much more,’ says Greengross. She adds that it’s always fascinating to see how businesses can ‘put aside their rivalries to come up with solutions that address issues’. The message is clear: if the high street banks want BITC to help rescue their reputation then they will need to work together.

In the short-term, however, there is an implicit conflict in such a collaborative approach. For example, Freshfields believes its work with BITC helps to differentiate the firm from its competitors. ‘Candidates frequently tell us that part of the reason they would choose us over another firm is that they want to be involved [in our BITC/community work],’ says Holden.

But if more companies come together in BITC’s programmes then truly there may be less likelihood of them gaining any competitive advantage. But no doubt BITC will hope that the need to be a ‘responsible business’ will be so strong as to just be a given of doing business at all.

And perhaps that will create a tipping point, when even the most cynical members of the public will stop seeing this work as just another way of scoring points and making a profit. Then they might truly start to believe that businesses of all sizes and across all sectors can really come together to change the world for the better.


In Freshfields’ 2012 Corporate Responsibility Materiality Survey, employees and clients responded as follows:

• 89 per cent of employees and 70 per cent of clients felt supporting the community was important

• 90 per cent of employees and 87 per cent of clients think the CR programme helps to enhance the firm’s reputation

• 72 per cent of employees and 91 per cent of clients believe it helps attract new talent

• 73 per cent of clients think the programme helps to win and retain clients

• 75 per cent of clients agree it strengthens the relationships between the firm and clients

• 61 per cent of clients said the firm’s approach to corporate responsibility was an important factor in deciding to work with Freshfields